It’s Alive?: Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein

Mary Shelleyvictor frankenstein

In honor of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s 200th birthday, and because I read the book for the first time this summer, I decided to watch two recent films made/inspired by the groundbreaking science fiction novel.

The first is this year’s Mary Shelley, which tells the story of Shelley’s life up to the publication of Frankenstein. The movie mainly focuses on her marriage to Percy Shelley and tries to connect parts of Mary’s life to her novel in order to show where she got her inspiration. One place this inspiration comes from is Mary Shelley’s mother, trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Referring to Wollstonecraft is great, as she did play a large role in Mary’s life, even though she died soon after Mary was born. The problem is, the film tries to give Wollstonecraft’s personality and characteristics to Shelley. They had similarities, yes, but were also very different people, which is part of what makes their relationship so interesting. The film does this so often that it makes me think they really just should have made a movie about Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley should be known, of course, and had an interesting life, but that interesting life was spent, for a large part, writing and grieving. There is only so much you can do to depict those in a visual medium, and this movie just isn’t up to the task. But, Mary Wollstonecraft was a much more vibrant character, and her story would lend itself better to this visual medium and it seems like the filmmakers felt the same way.

Frustratingly, this lackluster film does have scenes of brilliance that reveal and comment on Mary Shelley and the world around her. For example, there is a scene where Percy comes home and Mary tells him a friend of theirs made an advance on her. She refused him, but she clearly wants Percy to go avenge her and be grateful to her for her faithfulness to him. But instead, he’s upset. He wishes she had said yes to the man, so it would excuse his own affair. This scene is pointing out how the open-marriage, free-love ideologies of Percy and Byron always hurt and disempowered the women involved.

The potential of these moments makes me wish for what this movie could have been, a bold take on a brilliant author, instead of a Pride and Prejudice (2005) wannabe. These are the scenes that embrace the contradictions of Mary’s life, but they do not make up the whole film. Instead, the film is made up of melodramatic scenes that feel uninteresting and hollowing. Most baffling of all, in a film that wants to be about Mary and Percy Shelley’s unconventional romance, it not only tries to have an overly-construed happy conclusion, but the film ends right before some of the greatest drama of their relationship. Since the film seems more interested in the romance than Frankenstein anyway, why limit the timeline of the film? These creative choices make no sense and cripple the film even further.

So despite a few good scenes and great performances by Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, Mary Shelley is competent but numbingly bland. But, while I would prefer movies to be both competently made and interesting, if I had to choose between competent and bland or disastrously entertaining, I would choose the latter. So the nicest thing I can say about our second film, Victor Frankenstein, is that it is disastrously entertaining.

The movie itself has very, very little to do with the original novel, yet lacks a clear vision for what it wants to be on its own. It’s told mainly from the perspective of Igor, a character made up in pop culture and not from the original novel. The story, I guess, is supposed to be about the lead-up to the creation of the creature (who is only present for a full five minutes at the end of the film) but the real heart of the story is Victor “creating” Igor, and Igor struggling between his respect for Victor and his fear of Victor’s madness. That storyline is much more of a creator and creation story than the one between Frankenstein and the monster as presented in this film. So why does screenwriter Max Landis keep trying to cover this, the most interesting part of the film, up?  Add in an underdeveloped female love interest (in case anyone is getting any ideas about there being romance in this bromance) and a stock religious-fanatic-villain and the second and third act of the film is bogged down beyond repair. Victor Frankenstein doesn’t play to its strengths, which is the dynamic between Victor and Igor, played by James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe respectively. These actors have come here to chew gum and scenery, and they’re all out of gum. Their scenes are a guilty delight, but there is not nearly enough to let me recommend you this film in good conscience.

So, if you are in the mood for some Frankenstein, I would instead highly recommend the book Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon, which tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s trailblazing work for feminism and her fascinating, complicated life, and that of her daughter, Mary Shelley, and the tragedies that compel her to write the first science fiction novel. The book tells their stories in alternating chapters that show how the two women’s lives mirror one another. It is more enlightening and perceptive than Mary Shelley, and just a lot more worthy of your time than Victor Frankenstein. It’s a big book, but I couldn’t put it down. And to clarify, not only could I not put it down, but I read the entire book during my trip to New Zealand. It was so good, I literally set aside time while in Middle Earth to read this book. I also recommend, of course, the original novel Frankenstein, which not only holds up after 200 years but continues to become more and more relevant as time goes on.

Bonus Frankencontent:

I listened to Frankenstein on Audible, with narration by Dan Stevens. It was a truly tremendous 8 hours. Stevens makes every voice distinct, makes even the longest of monologues feel brisk and exciting, and carries the story with bravado. I would 10/10 recommend for both someone new to the book and an alum.

Additionally, my local movie theater offered a showing through Fathom Events of Frankenstein, a play written by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who alternate between the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature. It was originally put on by the National Theatre in London in 2011. I watched the version with Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein.

It is “inspired by” Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it truly takes such liberties that I can’t say much without spoiling it. But I can say that if you like Benedict Cumberbatch, be sure to see this version with him as the creature. The play is from the Creature’s perspective, so he has the bigger role, and he does a phenomenal job interpreting the Creature as a newborn child mixed with a Shakespearean caveman. It’s weird, but he commits to it, and it somehow works.

I’m not familiar with much of Miller’s work, except that he is the inferior Sherlock, and this play does him no favors. Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s book is a conflicted, agonized, multifaceted character who here has been reduced to a mad-scientist caricature, without a hint of humanity or complexity.

Therefore the writing is the weakest part. While I can admit Dear certainly has some interesting thoughts on the themes of Shelley’s novel, they never come to fruition during the meandering second half. One of these more interesting elements is Dear’s attempt to build upon the sexual undercurrents of the novel. While it’s not a bad instinct, he handles it, in my eyes, with unnecessary gratuity.

This all creates a dazzling stage production whose script threatens to overtake the good work of everyone else involved but is pulled through with a delightful performance by Cumberbatch that is able to, in the end, be considered a successful addition to what I’m going to call the “Good Adaptations of Frankenstein” genre. Too bad Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein won’t be joining it.

-Madeleine D

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♫ HAAAA AHA AHA AHH AHHHH HAAAA AH♫ : A Star Is Born

A star is born

If you know what the title of this review is referring to, you’ve probably seen A Star is Born. Or you’ve seen the trailer, in which case, you’ve seen the film. This is going to be an in-depth review, with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this new remake, go see it, and come back.

After seeing A Star is Born, I didn’t know what to think, so I began reading as many reviews and think pieces about the film as I could, to see if anyone else was feeling how I was and could articulate it. (So, I guess the cat’s out of the bag. I don’t just watch a film, retreat into a cave, and hope to make brilliant insights. I often talk to multiple people about the film, read other reviewers, and occasionally make blood sacrifices in order to write these reviews.)

In this case, research (and college) delayed this review because I want to be careful. I think in many ways A Star is Born is this year’s La La Land. An audience favorite, excellently made, has some conflicting messages, and is about Hollywood (this A Star is Born is about the music business but the original two films were about Hollywood, and that’s still what the heart of the film is about).

However, I think A Star is Born is a more interesting film than La La Land because I think it’s a film that, more than most, presents itself without much of a lens. You see, every film has a worldview. Every piece of art does. Being a discerning viewer is just the action of deciphering what the film’s worldview is, and not letting it sink in without some interrogation. But, what makes A Star is Born so interesting is that it is able to hide that worldview in a way that makes it more of a mirror- who the viewer is informs his or her interpretation of the piece.

Yet A Star is Born still does have a lens, no matter how well-hidden. To see what the filmmakers are saying about the material, we have to look at what the text says (the text being the substance of the film) and then the attitude in which it’s presented, which will reveal the ideologies of the filmmakers. And while film-making is a team effort, for the sake of simplicity I’m going to attribute ownership to director, co-writer, and star Bradley Cooper.

The original story of A Star is Born is about many things. It’s about fame and what it does to people. It’s about addiction. And it’s about the dynamics of male insecurity and female success. This is true in all previous versions of the film (Full disclosure: I have only seen the 1954 Judy Garland and James Mason version). Even in this latest version, which adds the poptimism vs rockist debate, it still has an element of gender, as rock is often coded as masculine, and pop as feminine, as these groups are the face of those respective genres. So in this version, the “male insecurity” is replaced with “authenticity” and “woman’s rise to fame” with “pop/selling out.” All of which makes this conversation a lot more difficult.

I think if you approach the film with the idea that Ally should be able to make the music she is comfortable with, and this does not at all excuse Jackson’s toxic behavior or addiction, then the text of the film seems to be saying that Jackson’s character is, no matter how well-intentioned, in the wrong. He starts drinking after Ally’s SNL performance, but that’s on him, not her. She never once shows regret for that performance or song. With all of Jackson’s talk about authenticity, he admits to “stealing” his brother’s voice, he later threatens to steal Ally’s song by performing it unless she sings with him, and before he commits suicide, he lays down his cowboy hat, as if taking off one final mask. These all read as Jackson having his own artifice, one he can’t bring himself to admit he has. His power over his career, and Ally, even if he won’t say it, is directly in proportion to her rise to fame. So he counteracts it with assuring himself of his own authenticity, and assuring himself that she is the pop sell-out who needs his protection and guidance, thus giving power back to him. Ally never sees it as a zero-sum game, but Jackson does.

This all makes it clear he’s insecure, holding onto a by-gone time, and his attitudes about authenticity and pop are misguided at best. Even if it isn’t as clear as previous incarnations, this has the same commentary on relationships and gender as the originals. But I don’t think that’s the message people will immediately walk out of the theater with, including myself, because the film has a visual language that goes straight for your heart, and the feeling the film evokes towards Jackson are tragedy and sympathy. Cooper is obsessed with making Jackson sympathetic, from his tragic backstory to his struggle with addiction being called “a disease,” and adding modern flourishes that are supposed to assure us that this cowboy-hat-wearing-country-boy isn’t like other cowboy-hat-wearing-country-boys (such as setting up this supposed authenticity-obsessed heterosexual love story in a drag bar, which shows this film doesn’t really understand the point of drag.) So while the film does admit that yes, Jackson is jealous and insecure but sees all of this as trying to protect Ally, it is presented as a tragic love story that could have been fixed if things had just gone differently. Richard Brody nails it on the head when he writes in his review of the film for The New Yorker, “The film is made in such a way as to spare Cooper any fear of jealousy: its vision of self-expression is, above all, the expression of one self.”

To be fair, this remake does go to some lengths to equalize the relationship between Jackson and Ally, so the remakes become less of a story about gender roles and more of one between the struggle of staying true to your artistic visions and what that looks like. But this is a story that has always been about gender, and it can’t pretend it’s not. It is in sidestepping this area of the story where Cooper weakens the film.

In order to ensure this sympathy and sidestep the troubling implications of the story, Cooper makes some storytelling cheats. Ally is sidelined for the second half of the film, so we don’t get to actually hear from her, which means the only true point of view we get is Jackson’s. As he spends the film feeling Ally is being inauthentic, this is what the audience is conditioned to think, too. When we do hear from Ally, after some reluctance at the start, she is positive about her success. Her new hair color, her producer notes, was her choice. She loves her success, and so does her audience. She doesn’t see herself as inauthentic, and anytime she becomes doubtful, it’s after Jackson makes a comment about it. And most importantly, it’s important to consider that you can do both. You can make bouncy pop songs and so-called “authentic” ballads. It shouldn’t be a binary choice, yet for Ally’s character, it is presented as such (and conveniently we don’t see how Jackson is able to support his career so independently without making any of the same concessions as she does).

I applaud the film for exploring the anxiety this man has about the changes in his life. Just because he does bad things doesn’t mean he’s a villain or should be one-dimensional, or shouldn’t be looked at with compassion. Exploring why he feels jealous and anxious and can’t let go of his ideas of what is authentic (i.e, him) is important, especially in a time where a lot of men feel unsure of their place in a rapidly changing culture.

The problem is that Cooper is uncomfortable with associating Jackson with any of these things. Cooper dodges these discussions, instead leaning into the romantic tragedy of the story, without really digging deep into all of the reasons this story keeps resonating. All of these elements are present in the film, and if you think about it you can find them. But the way the film is presented, not to mention its press tour, covers a lot of that up. In a movie that is obsessed with taking off Lady Gaga’s makeup as some kind of sign of a woman revealing her *true* self, it doesn’t quite let Jackson do the same, even when his character has seemingly vulnerable moments.

A Star is Born is an entertaining, extremely well-made film. It’s a fascinating start for Bradley Cooper’s directing career and Lady Gaga’s Hollywood takeover. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat. The screenplay sets up a complicated story that doesn’t take sides and instead lets its character struggle. It pays homage to the originals while still being its own entity. The only thing standing in its way is Cooper, who doesn’t feel comfortable allowing the film to explore its own depths. He seems, like his character, to be afraid of sharing too much of the spotlight, and instead shapes a superficial narrative that threatens to cast a shadow over the other excellent work done here. But it doesn’t have to. I have discussed the film with many people, and more than a lot of movies this year, everyone seems to have a unique interpretation, and any movie that can stir up so much thought is an accomplishment.

-Madeleine D

The Best Christian Movie Of The Year: The Hate U Give

THE HATE U GIVE

The Hate U Give is based on the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas. It follows a young black girl named Starr Carter, (Amandla Stenberg) who struggles to live between the world of her black neighborhood and her white preparatory school. After her childhood friend is shot and killed by the police at a traffic stop, the divide between her world becomes bigger as she struggles with whether to step forward as a witness to the shooting.

So why is The Hate U Give the best Christian movie of the year? After all, it’s not from the Kendrick Brothers, it’s not the next God’s Not Dead film, and it doesn’t have any children coming back from heaven. It’s not been advertised as a Christian movie in any regard.

It’s the best Christian movie of the year because it is a film that sees its characters the way Jesus sees us. It takes a complicated situation and slowly unravels all of its layers with empathy, lament, hope, and a cry for reconciliation and justice. It is a movie that is pro-life. It advocates for protecting the oppressed and recognizes the value and dignity of every human life. It is an honest movie because it laments the hate in our world and recognizes that it comes from everyone. It sees all of its characters as complex people who are sinful. It confronts large-scale systematic injustice and small-scale prejudice, without ever turning into a movie about us versus them. Instead of running away from the characters who appear to be in the wrong, the movie moves towards them with compassion. It looks suffering and pain square in the face- although it is never gratuitous- and then looks up in hope. It doesn’t just ask questions, but suggests solutions, all without acting like it has all of the answers.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a pure message-film. I’m sure some viewers will approach the film with cynicism thinking, it’s just Oscar-bait because this is the next cause the liberals want to back. It’s going to be preachy and one-sided. This is not the case. The Hate U Give is an effective movie, but not because it is “trendy” or “topical.” It is the fact that it feels (unfortunately) timeless that makes it so strong. And yes, it does have a message (all films do) and there are moments in the film where this isn’t exactly subtle. But, the film is always centered on its characters. Everything else is secondary. It is about one girl’s life, and while her viewpoint touches on bigger issues, it’s about her. In fact, there are only one or two scenes in the film that don’t have Starr in them. This is what keeps the movie grounded, even as it deals with so many issues, and this is what will make you remember it once you leave the theater. You will remember Starr and her family.

The Hate U Give is also a must-see because it is just an excellently made film, which seems to be something a lot of Christian movies are afraid of being. The writing, directing, and cinematography, in particular, are excellent, and the actors are all spectacular. Not to be punny, but Amandla Stenberg is a Star. She carries The Hate U Give and ups the game of everyone around her. In fact, the only weak cast member is Anthony Mackie, whose charisma is clearly miscast in a role in which all he does is stand around and give the same I’m peeved and intimidating look.  

Another reason it is a must see is because the film equips white viewers with a guide on how to be an ally. It first asks you to look beyond stereotypes with compassion. Reading the book and seeing the movie made me think about if my friends of color felt like Starr. Did our majority white high school force them to be someone else? How did I contribute to that? Secondly, the film gives you examples of how to react if someone accuses you of doing something racist. Getting defensive does nothing- it just kills the relationship and any potential for learning. Instead, seeking to understand why you’ve been accused and how to make amends is what furthers and deepens a relationship. And third, the film shows you how to be an ally within a larger movement. How can white allies help Black Lives Matter? The movie’s advice is to listen to the people of color in charge and follow their instructions (as your conscience allows). Support them, learn from them, and amplify their voices over your own.

A small warning though: at over two hours, the film has cut a lot from the book, and most of the things it cut were the happier moments, which means the film is a non-stop gut punch, with very few moments of respite. The moments of peace given are extremely effective, but by the end of the film, you will feel as emotionally drained as Starr. That’s an excellent movie-going experience if you ask me, but do be prepared for a heavy two hours. When I was walking into the theater, I was nearly backed into by a car in the parking lot. When I walked out, I felt like I might as well have been hit by that car.

The Hate U Give is a challenging film because it refuses to be easy. It doesn’t let you walk away feeling smug or self-righteous. Instead, it gives more nuance than our polarized age wants to allow. It’s a film I hope Christian filmmakers and studios will pay attention to, and it’s one you should pay attention to, also. It’s one of the best films of the year.

If you’d like to think more about films that view their subjects in a Christ-like way without necessarily speaking directly about Christ, I highly recommend this article: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christ-like-gaze-film/

-Madeleine D

Triple Feature: Crazy Rich Asians, The Meg, and The Fundamentals of Caring

I emerge from the abyss of college, with darker rings under my eyes and a smaller bank account, to bring you hot takes on a couple films that have been in theaters for a while now.

Crazy Rich Asians

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Overall? It’s charming, but forgettable. However, this is only the second film with an all-Asian cast ever made in Hollywood, and to hold it to a ridiculous standard of perfection in order to justify its existence is…ridiculous. If you like romantic movies that make you believe in love again, then go see it. It’s a visually stunning film with a talented cast. It’s not particularly funny, even though it was billed as a rom-com, but it’s very sweet. If you had plans to see it, see it, but otherwise, I recommend a rental.  

On a side note, a personal shout-out to director Jon Chu, who is only mediocre here, but directed one of my favorite bad-movies of all time, Now You See Me 2. Keep having a wildly varied career, Jon.

The Meg

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It’s like the last twenty minutes of Jaws, but without any of the good directing, writing, or constraint. But if you just want to enjoy the thrill, The Meg delivers. It tries very hard to make you care about every one of its 10+ character cast, but so much happens that you forget which characters are alive and which are dead. While I appreciate trying to put human emotions into this film, none of it comes across as very genuine or earned. Truly, the movie’s best parts are Jason Statham being used as live shark bait, and if it had stuck to its strengths, the movie wouldn’t feel as long as it does, and have as many fake-out endings as Return of the King.

The Fundamentals of Caring

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This is actually a 2016 Netflix movie, but I’m reviewing it anyway. This is what happens when Moviepass fails me.

The Fundamentals of Caring, based on the book The Revised Fundamentals of Caring by Jonathan Evison, tells the story of Ben (Paul Rudd), a new caregiver, who is assigned to Trevor (Craig Roberts) a teen with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The film falls into the likes of other cutsie road-trip indies (which I adore but can constructively criticize) such as Little Miss Sunshine. It has quite a few indie-movie pitfalls, most notably characters defined by one or two extreme quirks (She curses and smokes but has a heart of gold! So edgy! The other woman is super pregnant and… not much else! The disabled kid makes crass jokes and pulls mean pranks! Wow! No stereotypes here. The other guy literally runs away from lawyers! This is three-dimensional). Paul Rudd is precious though, and makes the more hamfisted moments feel light and natural.

It’s a message movie, one that is two-fold. One of these messages is questionable, and the other works quite well. The first: Ben is struggling with the loss of his son, and, though he denies it, it is clear Trevor becomes a son-like figure to him. Trevor calls him out on this, but the movie does not, ultimately saying that while Ben and Trevor eventually can move from one-sided father/son to friends, that Ben needs this to come to terms with the loss of his son, and Trevor wouldn’t have left his house if Ben hadn’t pushed him paternally.  

The problem is, that Ben’s son was a toddler. And so having Trevor, an 18-year-old, replace a toddler in Ben’s mind, is problematic. This dynamic becomes more complicated when you consider that these bonding moments are often framed around Ben and Trevor interactions while Ben is helping Trevor use the toilet (and if you haven’t seen the movie, then believe me. It isn’t just a one-off scene. This is a continuous thread throughout the film. It is the climax.)

Now I appreciate that the movie doesn’t shy away from the more squeamish parts of caretaking (unlike, say, Me Before You). But Trevor’s need for help here is not because he is a toddler, but simply because of his disease. He is still an adult. By using these interactions, which, when put through this parental lens, have an obvious connection to taking care of a toddler, the film infantilizes Trevor, for the sole purpose of giving Ben an emotional arc. Trevor’s character development is over halfway through the film, which means he spends at least half of the film only contributing to an abled-persons growth. For a story that tries very hard to keep its disabled character from being the stereotypical “inspirational” figure, it’s an uneasy commentary.

However, the film gets the other theme right. Ben is told at the beginning of the film that there must be a distance between caretaker and patient. But Ben can’t keep that distance. He can’t just take care of Trevor’s physical needs; after he learns about Trevor’s emotional ones, he seeks to help fulfill those too. Caretaking, the film argues, must be holistic. You can’t care for someone without entering into their pain; body, mind, and soul.

But the film also has a nice touch at the end by saying that Ben resigned as Trevor’s caretaker but kept being his friend. Because it’s true that real-life professional caretakers, not movie characters, must keep some professional distance. In fact, I watched this film with my roommate, who is a certified nurse’s aide. Throughout the film, I occasionally turned to her and asked, “would you be allowed to do this?” She regularly said no.

So despite the cliches, the heart of the story- that we should take responsibility for the people around us- shines through.

-Madeleine D

Satire and Catharsis: BlacKkKlansman

blackkklansman

BlacKkKlansman is the true(ish) story of Ron Stallworth (a fantastic John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. He talks to the “organization” members (and even David Duke) on the phone, while fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (an excellently understated Adam Driver) goes in person to the meetings. This Spike Lee Joint is a little too long (clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes) but is entertaining and is an odyssey of different genres, moods, and political and social discussions.

BlacKkKlansman has a satiric undercurrent that, I’d argue, is not fully effective. The Klan members in the film here are not simply mocked for their supremacist ideologies. They are also mocked for things like being uneducated, southern, gun-loving, and fat. Things that, while they may describe some Klan members, are not directly tied to being racist. Making the KKK members caricatured and so removed from what we would like to think of ourselves (along with making the heroes more typical of Hollywood standard of beauty), removes white audiences from thinking too hard about whether they have anything in common with these Klan members. Instead, you can sit back and think, “Of course I’m not like that. I’m not racist. I’m not like them.”

This is why Jordan Peele’s Get Out was so effective- it asserted that white liberals can be racist (Peele produces here). It uses the language of white people assured of their innocence against them. BlacKkKlansman does not challenge in the same way.

Saying someone is racist or not needs to stop, because that halts productive conversation on race. Anyone is capable of saying racist things, and when a white person is told they are being racist, the response should not be, “I’m not racist so I can’t say racist things.” It should be, “What did I do and how can I stop?” Being so binary is unproductive, and yet it is what this movie deals in (there are some exceptions, like the character of Flip, but it is the overarching tone of the film).

But BlacKkKlansman does not just contain satire; it also contains catharsis. Ron gets the last laugh. He throws his arms around David Duke and mocks him. There are moments throughout the film that are meant to not only say, “we will overcome” to black audiences, but relieve anxious white audience members. Catharsis is a good thing, and film is an excellent medium to provide it.  But pairing it with satire is tricky, because satire is supposed to provoke conversation, and catharsis is about ending it, in a way that relieves the pressure of such a conversation and/or oppression to a person or group of people.

There is also the question of who this movie is intended for. It draws a direct comparison between the KKK and Donald Trump.

I am not opposed to politics in film. If you are, don’t see a Spike Lee film about the KKK. But by doing this in an overt way, the film makes less sense in who its intended audience is. The movie sure isn’t going to be watched by a KKK member, unless the trailer really confused them. It will make Trump supporters feel like they are being accused of being aligned with the KKK. It will make a white audience who are assured of their enlightenment feel smug. And I doubt black Americans need a reminder of how white supremacy and the ideals of the KKK, as shown in events like Charlottesville, are so prevalent today.

Making fun of the KKK could be an effective way to strip them of power, but doing it so that what is being made fun of includes attributes unrelated to the psychology of their hate is not effective satire. It may be cathartic, but it does not do what needs to be done, which is have people recognize these attributes in themselves. The more white audiences realize how they believe (whether they mean to or not) in aspects of KKK ideology, and how those ideologies are the foundation of America itself, the more an honest healing process can begin.

But here I have to admit my own prejudice. I’m white. I can talk about wanting nuance and complexity, because while I despise white supremacy and the KKK, I am not directly affected by it. I have never been on the receiving end of such violent, oppressive hate. So I will never be able to empathize fully. I will never be as angry as every black person in America has the right to be.

So while this wasn’t the movie I want, and I still think there are problems, this is Spike Lee’s movie. And he can be as angry as he wants, and can make a movie where the good guys win, black Americans have a victory, and he can call out President Trump as he likes. This movie is his prayer of lament. Of anger. Of despair. Of hope. So in that regard, I think others will find great comfort in this film, and if you watch it with discerning eyes, it should make you uncomfortable. Not just with others, but with yourself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There is one more thing I must add. The best part of the film, and one of the best scenes of the year, answers the question most white people have probably asked at some point: “why can black people say ‘black power’ but I can’t say ‘white power?’” Near the climax of the film, Lee cuts back and forth between a meeting of the KKK, and a black power meeting. The KKK is about looking backward, mythologizing and endorsing the violence of the past, and glorifying white-led oppression. It’s about securing lies about the white race. The black power meeting is about remembering the truth, and learning how to move forward. One is about honesty, the other is not. And Lee does challenge some of the black power movement’s more radical ideas, but in this case, it is clear that white power and black power do not share the same meaning, just for different races. The ability to say this, without words, through the narrative of the movie, is one of the best uses of cinema I have seen.

-Madeleine D

Netflix’s Sci-Fi Duds: Extinction and How It Ends

Image result for extinction netflix movieImage result for how it ends netflix movie

Netflix has become not only our entertainment overlord, but also a relentless content factory. Their business model has become “throw it to the wall and see what sticks.” So while it takes more time to sift through the bad content to get to the good, an unexpected side-effect is that the company has been leaning hard into sci-fi, and has been turning out an impressive number of films. Altered Carbon, Mute, Lost in Space, Annihilation, Okja, The Cloverfield Paradox, Bright, and What Happened to Monday have all come out within the last year, and are a very mixed bag (Okja and Annihilation are the best of the bunch). I love the idea of Netflix becoming a patron of sci-fi, supporting smaller productions with up-and-coming talent. But with Netflix becoming the dumping ground for films that studios don’t think can make it on the big screen, I have to wonder if this is actually improving the genre. Unfortunately, Extinction and How It Ends, both newly-released Netflix fare, are not helping Netflix’s case.

Extinction was a movie I was very excited about. I like stars Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan, and the story of a dad who has visions about an apocalypse he will soon have to save his family from is familiar territory, but could be taken in a unique direction.

Alas, this film only has one goal in mind: get to the plot twist, which comes about thirty minutes from the end. So for at least an hour, we get a blasé, dull, and standard sci-fi alien invasion film. The twist doesn’t get enough time to fully develop, and it doesn’t impact the first hour of the film enough to make it worth watching. The lead-up to the twist is more filler than a compelling narrative.

Extinction tries to have a political undercurrent. For example, there’s a sign that says, “A Cyborg Took My Job.” But if you try to read the groups in the film as an allegory, the implications become a little concerning. Don’t think too hard about it. But if you take it for what it is in the film, the twist does attempt to add a different dimension to the are-robots-people question. It just comes so late in the film that it is kept from reaching its full potential.

So while I can see why Extinction was pulled from the Universal movie slate, it is still a passable two hours if you have Netflix. But with so much to see right now, passable isn’t enough. You’re worth more than that.

But Extinction is a Hitchcockian masterpiece compared to How it Ends, which is my new worst movie of the year. Congratulations! You took my favorite subgenre- the road trip- and made it a contender for the dullest two hours of my life.

Here’s why road trips paired with disaster films should work: road trips are an inevitable part of most of our lives. Pair it with something abnormal, and suddenly you’ve created the perfect dynamic in your movie. The macro-conflict can come from the disaster, zombies, robots, whatever. The micro-conflict that drives characters come from the road trip aspect. How we react in a disaster becomes framed by the normality of driving.

So what this film about a guy named Will (Theo James) and his prickly future father-in-law Tom (Forest Whitaker) driving across the country after something bad takes out all the power to get to his fiance should have had was Will and Tom arguing about where to take bathroom breaks, what kind of music to play, and exchanging stories about their daughter/fiance. It could be tense at times, sure, but not the lifeless sludge it ends up being. An endless repetition of being attacked by people on the road does not an exciting movie make.

I have no idea who these people are by the end of the film, and the “in-law road trip from hell” pitch is completely wasted in favor of the blandest War of the Worlds rip-off ever. There is no originality anywhere in this film. No clever solutions, no interesting dialogue, no real emotions, nothing of substance or that will be remembered. Theo James stares blankly at everyone he encounters and has the personality of a video-game shooter. Forest Whitaker solves every problem in the film by looking characters in the eyes and saying, “Trust me,” and if that doesn’t work, killing them.

I can’t recommend not seeing this film enough. It has the worst ending I’ve ever seen, a non-ending. Not to be too picky, but I feel pretty strongly that a movie called How It Ends should have an ending. My only explanation is that screenwriter Brook McLaren fell asleep before writing the ending, somehow hit his head, got amnesia, and forgot his idea for the ending. I too wish I could forget this film.

I’m not giving up on Netflix as a patron of science fiction. It has still given us good sci-fi films (again, Annihilation and Okja, people). But quality is better than quantity, and I don’t want flops like these to dilute and drag down such an exciting genre.

Filming Hobbits and Narnians: Film Sets in New Zealand

Here at madeleinelovesmovies.com, we’re not just film critics, we’re also fans. And what do film fans do on their vacations? They go visit movie sets! So, we traveled halfway around the world to visit some of the sets and a studio where The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were filmed. Before we get into pictures, though, here are some observations:

  1. New Zealand is even more beautiful than the movies make it look. No kidding, Norway, Austria, and Alaska are gorgeous, but New Zealand might be the most beautiful place on earth.
  2. While The Lord of the Rings is beautifully shot, tracking down the sets lets you know that it was much more of a ‘backyard shoot’ than you might think. For instance, the awesome scene where the four hobbits hide from a Nazgul under a massive tree root? It was filmed in a little city park on the top of Mount Victoria about 15 minutes away from WETA Worship. The epic location for the Battle of Helm’s Deep? A little stone quarry just off the main highway outside of Wellington (see pics below).
  3. While we weren’t huge fans of the Chronicles of Narnia movies released in 2005, 2008, and 2010 (mainly because we love the books so much and didn’t feel like they represented the books well enough), some of the places where they filmed were definitely worth visiting.
  4. It is a shame that they didn’t keep more of the sets of The Lord of the Rings. Hobbiton is the obvious exception, although we learned that they destroyed the Shire after the first trilogy (that’s actually the film set being burned in the Shire-burning scene in Return of the King) and then they rebuilt the whole thing again for the 2nd trilogy. The 2nd time they left Hobbiton intact on the Alexander farm on the North island, and the tour is definitely worth doing.
  5. Visiting all of these places, and particularly the WETA Workshop (where they do a lot of the special effects as well as costumes and miniatures), is really a celebration of the craftsmanship and passion of the people who make these movies (thousands of people, not just Peter Jackson). Seeing and reading about the process adds to the enjoyment of the films and is a gratifying experience for anyone interested in the art of film.

Here are our pictures with corresponding film stills (note for future travelers: all locations are on the North Island except Castle Hill, which is on the South Island):

Cathedral Cove in Coromandel/ Prince Caspian

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Bag End in Hobbiton/ The Fellowship of the Ring

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The Green Dragon Inn in Hobbiton/ The Fellowship of the Ring

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Mount Doom (Mt. Ngauruhoe) in Tongariro National Park/ Return of the King

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Mangawhero Falls in Tongariro National Park/ The Two Towers

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WETA Worship in Wellington/ The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Narnia…

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Rock Quarry outside Wellington/ The Two Towers (gotta use your imagination here)

IMG_6160Helm's Deep

Rivendell in Kaitoke Park outside Wellington/ The Fellowship of the Ring

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Castle Hill near Arthur’s Pass/ The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe

IMG_6228Castle Hill

-Madeleine D and Jonathan D